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As the political debate over refugees in America heats up during this political season, this series explores the experiences of refugees who are settling, and have settled, in Virginia, and the programs that provide services for them. The Harrisonburg and Charlottesville areas lead the way in refugee resettlement in Virginia. Harrisonburg is second only to Northern Virginia in the number of resettled refugees, which numbered 260 in 2013.

Poultry Industry is Work Destination for Many Valley Refugees

Jessie Knadler

Harrisonburg is a designated resettlement area, accepting up to 200 refugees each year.  Many of them find employment at one of the big poultry processing facilities in the area, an industry requiring a lot of manual labor and not a lot of English. WMRA's Jessie Knadler spoke to the head of the Perdue facility in Bridgewater to get a sense of the benefits and challenges of this workforce dynamic.

First thing’s first: Perdue’s Bridgewater facility – the company’s only facility in the region -- is where the cooking happens—anything from nuggets, cutlets, strips to fully cooked whole birds.

KENNY LAMBERT: I’m running about a million and a quarter on chicken a week and on the turkey side I’m running about a million and a third and I can pretty easily on the turkey side go up to about two million.

Director of Operations Kenny Lambert is referring to pounds—his facility produces millions and millions of pounds of cooked poultry product every week bound for grocery stores nationwide. Five hundred and eighty employees make it happen. Forty two percent of them are immigrants. Other than the Harrisonburg public school system, you’re not going to find a more multicultural mix than at a poultry factory.

LAMBERT: Currently our countries are made up of Mexico, El Salvador, Guatamala, Honduras, Cuba, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Bosnia, Russia, Kenya and right now we have a couple of people from Uganda.

Perdue doesn’t break the numbers down to determine how many of those immigrants are refugees. Essentially, the company’s hiring credo is, if you can do the job, you have a job, English not mandatory.

LAMBERT: It’s really the demographics of the area. We’re not signaling to hire anyone specifically based on race or religion or anything like that.

Still, working with a 42 percent non native American workforce presents its challenges—specifically, language barriers between managers and employees, whom Perdue calls “associates.”

LAMBERT: If an associate comes to us and asks us to help them find an English as Second Language [class] we’ll help them find a class that’s suitable for the time that they have, and the hours that they have and we’ll subsidize it, we’ll help pay for the class. They’re quite expensive.

Employees have to be with the company for at least six months to apply for this benefit. Classes are usually taught through the Dayton Learning Center.

And it works both ways. Lambert is now fluent in Spanish, and can speak some Bosnian and Russian, as result of working for Perdue.

He didn’t take me to see the processing area to witness where all the nationalities converge but he did say that associates are assigned to problem solving teams that are intentionally mixed.

LAMBERT: We want folks to mesh together and to become more of a family, more of a team in the processing area. We really don’t want to segregate and create barriers.

There’s also a common misconception that immigrants or refugees come to the United States for a higher standard of living. That’s not always the case. Plenty undergo a loss of professional prestige in exchange for the relative safety of living in the United States.

LAMBERT: We have a gentleman who is here from Cuba. He is a lead on a packing line and in Cuba he was a dentist. We also had a lady, she started off here as an hourly associate….and in Cuba she was an architect.

White collar professionals end up doing manual labor for the first time in their lives, which can be an adjustment.

LAMBERT: We had two different chemicals and they were cleaning chemicals in the production area and a Bosnian guy called me over and he wrote the equation for the two chemicals and he solved the equation and pointed out the fact that the two chemicals when they came together could be dangerous. This guy was very highly educated in chemistry.

Regardless of the training and skills newcomers bring with them, Lambert values the melting pot of new perspectives.

LAMBERT: They’re bright, contributing people who interact very well with the work groups and actually have come up with very ingenious ideas for ways to improve the process.

Jessie Knadler is the editor and co-founder of Shen Valley Magazine, a quarterly print publication that highlights the entrepreneurial energy of the Shenandoah Valley. She has been reporting off and on for WMRA, and occasionally for National Public Radio, since 2015. Her articles and reporting have appeared everywhere from The Wall Street Journal to Real Simple to The Daily Beast. She is the author of two books, including Rurally Screwed (Berkley), inspired by her popular personal blog of the same name, which she wrote for six years. In her spare time, she teaches Pilates reformer, and is the owner of the equipment-based Pilates studio Speakeasy Pilates in Lexington. She is mom to two incredible daughters, June and Katie. IG: @shenvalleymag